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21 December 2017

Damian Green’s sacking does not mean Theresa May is strong

For a real glimpse into the PM’s power look at the ministers she might want to dispense with, but can't.

By Stephen Bush

Theresa May has forced Damian Green’s resignation from the cabinet following the conclusion of the inquiry into allegations against him. He was found to have broken the ministerial code by denying knowledge of pornography on his computer, while the accusations against him by journalist Kate Maltby (who is known to me socially) were found to be “plausible”.

There are three subjects that matter. The first are the accusations against Green and the response to allegations of sexual harassment at Westminster more broadly. Maltby was monstered in the Daily Mail as a result of her allegation that Green made a sexual advance on her and suggested it could help her in her career. She received no support from the institutions of the Conservative Party. All parties have a long way to go to get their houses in order.

The second is the behaviour of former members of the Metropolitan Police and how their evidence was brought into the public domain. That the Cabinet Office inquiry found the accusations to be credible would have always meant that Green would have been left under likely irresistible pressure to step aside. But that members of the force kept information from an unrelated and closed investigation, and chose to bring it to light in the manner they did, is also alarming though not especially surprising.

Again, the questions of how some members of the police behave, which should have been addressed by politicians years ago, were completely neglected even after members of the police were found to have lied about an incident involving a sitting cabinet minister.

The third is what it means for Theresa May and what it says about her political position: is she stronger, weaker, or neither? It’s certainly true, as George Eaton writes, that Green’s exit increases the smell of decay around the government.

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But I’m not convinced by the take that seems to be becoming the accepted orthodoxy at Westminster: that May’s ability to force his resignation without fear that the whole edifice will collapse is a sign of strength on her part. May didn’t want him to go, and Green was one of the vanishingly small number of ministers she has always had the power to remove. 

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The reason why she created the role of “de facto deputy prime minister” was that she needed to free up a proper job around the cabinet table in order to accommodate her most dangerous external opponent, Michael Gove. For a real glimpse into the PM’s power, or lack thereof, look at the ministers whom she might want to dispense with, but can’t, like Philip Hammond, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss. (That Green’s role was one made to service that crisis means that there is no immediate pressure to fill it, and May will wait until the New Year, and possibly a wider reshuffle, until she fills it.)

Rather than being shown to be stronger or weaker, May’s position remains unchanged. She is strong by virtue of two constitutions: the written one that governs the Conservative Party which makes her highly difficult to remove as leader, and the unwritten one that governs Britain which hands much of the power around the making of treaties to the Crown aka the office of the Prime Minister. She is weak by virtue of, well, everything else.